Skip to content

Korea Blog: “Western Avenue”, Korean Cinema’s Response to the Los Angeles Riots

The Korean name of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, sa-i-gu (사이구), means “four, two, nine” — or rather 4/29, the first of the six days they tore through streets after the the Rodney King verdict came out. Given Los Angeles’ large Korean population, the highest of any city outside the Korean Peninsula itself, and the fact that its Korean-owned stores took so much of the damage, the Korean media granted this unrest on the other side of the Pacific the importance of a domestic disaster, flying at least 30 journalists straight over to interpret the chaos for the dismayed and bewildered audience back home. The very next year, Korean cinema, enjoying a 1990s resurgence after a couple decades spent losing out to foreign (and especially Hollywood) imports, came out with its first and still only statement on the riots: Western Avenue.

Directed by Chang Kil-soo, a filmmaker already known for telling stories of countrymen crushed in pursuit of the American Dream, the movie (which you can watch, albeit without subtitles, on Youtube) sees the riots through the eyes of a representative Korean immigrant family: Kim and his wife, who arrive in Los Angeles in the 1970s and work hard to save up for their own convenience store in which to work harder still, and their three Korean-American children, saddled with the “English names” of Frank, Bobby, and Marian. Just before the riots break out, the film carefully gathers the entire Kim family, along with the store’s sole black employee and his grown son, into their blast radius with only a single handgun for defense. But its last-act depiction of Korean suffering at the hands of black rioters comes after much more time spent depicting Koreans suffering at the hands of unsympathetic whites.

Or rather, its first two acts focus on the suffering of Marian — real name Jee-soo — after she dares to change her college major from medicine to drama, getting temporarily disowned by the enraged Kim as a result. Graduating from Yale, she moves to New York with her fledgling filmmaker boyfriend Steve, a mulleted loudmouth who takes her idea of making a movie about her own immigrant experience and turns it into an psycho-erotic spectacle titled The Exotic. “This film is so sexual,” asks a ponytailed slickster at its debut Q&A. “Did you have a hard time to act, with the Oriental morals?” Chang presents this as the humiliating nadir of Marian’s futile struggle for acceptance in the country she had since childhood regarded as her own. When she justified her disobedience of Kim’s demand that she become a doctor, she’d described herself as not a Korean but an American — only to have Steve describe her as “my little wildflower from the Orient.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.